Walatowa High Charter School website
Walatowa High students perform the Jemez Buffalo Dance at an Albuquerque high school earlier this year. Walatowa is the only charter high school located on tribal lands in New Mexico.

Jemez Pueblo Charter Schools Soaring to New Heights

Harlan McKosato
5/27/14

Walatowa High Charter School at Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico is described by its Principal/Superintendent Arrow Wilkinson as “the world’s smallest school district.” Because of the experiential-learning school’s unique charter as its own local educational agency, his comment holds plenty of merit.

Jemez Pueblo is described as the Native community with the highest level of tribal language fluency in the U.S. According to a recent tribal survey nearly 75 percent of tribal members speak Towa—a majority of them live in the village known as Walatowa (meaning this is the place). The older generations are at 85 to 90 percent fluent, but the percentage drops among the younger generations.

The Towa language is passed down orally and is not written. Virtually all tribal elders and leaders believe this methodology is the best way to maintain the Jemez traditions and history into the future. They recognize that without the language and its fluent use much of the context of their stories about their past, their homelands, and their ancestors will be lost.

Annually, American Indian and Alaska Native high school graduation rates are the lowest of any racial or ethnic population in the U.S.—roughly 50 percent nationally according to a report called “Diplomas Count 2013” published by Education Week. Native dropout rates are nearly twice that of all students nationwide. Pueblo schools and students across New Mexico are not immune to any of these negative numbers.

Some of the lowest Standards Based Assessment (SBA) scores in the nation are recorded at Indian reservation schools. SBA is an annual state test that measures high school student achievement in reading, math and science. In New Mexico, the SBA also serves as the high school exit exam. Traditionally, communication in a Pueblo household is nearly all verbal and nonverbal, with very little reading.

Over a decade ago Jemez tribal leaders recognized this quandary and became proactive in improving their children’s academics without sacrificing their language and culture. A movement began in 1999 and Jemez tribal members were polled and asked, “What would you like the Pueblo to look like in 2010?”

A Walatowa High senior presents his mandatory thesis to members of the Jemez Pueblo tribal community. (Kathleen Phelan)

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bullbear's picture
bullbear
Submitted by bullbear on
Sometimes, big things comes from small places. From my first field job assignment in the mid-80's while living in Albuquerque, I saw that the Jemez residents had big hearts and were quick to share a smile and warm greeting. The roots of the Walatowa are sunk deeply into the red earth where they lived for countless generations and have continuously practiced their traditions on a day-to-day basis whereby their native Towa language is firmly interwoven. So it stands to reason that there is a high level of native tongue speakers. That being said, my personal feeling is that all tribes should have their native language written and recorded. With high tech being what it is today, teaching the language could perhaps be bolstered to non-speakers such as youth growing up away from their homeland that desire to be fully immersed in the traditions of their people. One tribe that loses its native language is one too many regardless if the tribe is small in number. Sadly, some tribes have lost their last fully fluent native language speaker, but it is always encouraging that some tribes are already working at recording their unique language. English lacks so many words and their meaning which are readily and simply descriptive of everyday senses and meanings. I will always remember the day my Jemez friend and I sat at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center restaurant in Albuquerque ready to order lunch. When the waitress came to take our order, I asked for an Indian taco and he wanted the same, except he requested a Towa taco - one of the same? Not if you were from Walatowa. A hardy degree of congratulations to the many big successes and achievements of Walatowa High Charter School!

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
You hit the nail on the head, Bullbear! THE key to saving our languages is going to have to be the immersion schools some rez's are starting: They teach our little ones the language, the culture & all that makes each of our tribal nations unique. I know of a place that does this in Montana as well. ....................................................................................................................... I applaud the folks of the Walatowa with this charter school & praise their teachers, families & students who are engaged in passing on the things that make their people who they have become over thousands of years. Now the rest of our many tribal nations need to get the SAME thing going on to save their tribal communities & nations for future generations to come.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
It's GREAT to see ICTMN covering TWO news stories in my state this week. It's equally GREAT to know that the importance of keeping Native languages alive. You can't think like your elders if you don't know what they were saying.
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